Procurement data woes: Public lashings probably won't help

A proposed policy to penalize VA contracting officers might not get the desired results, experts say.

The lashings will continue until morale improves, in a manner of speaking. That's how some people might interpret a proposed policy to compel contracting officers at the Veterans Affairs Department to do a better job of entering procurement data into the department’s records management system.

VA officials have struggled to get acquisition employees to file the appropriate information into the system. Without that discipline, the department is left with an expensive records management system of essentially useless figures. Compare it to incomplete baseball statistics on big-league pitchers when the Cy Young Award is up for grabs.

Under the proposed policy, employees who fail to keep up would be penalized during their annual performance reviews.

It is worth remembering though that this is a major problem for the government as a whole — not just for VA. Officials have long complained about poor data in the Federal Procurement Data System, and now they fear that the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System will fall flat for the same reason.

FAPIIS is supposed to be a large central portal for contracting officers to quickly get detailed information on contractors — from their past-performance reviews to their business history with the government. But the system is worthless if no one enters the necessary data.

“Getting good data about federal procurement actions has been a problem for way too long,” said Jim Williams, former commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service. “It is hard to manage without good data.”

So should agencies penalize employees for not inputting information when it’s their job to do so? Many experts say, not so fast.

Managers must carefully consider the future effects of a decision to penalize employees, said Williams, who’s now senior vice president of global professional services at Daon, a software services provider.

“As if their job isn’t already stressful enough, this kind of practice could be taken to an extreme,” he added.

Other government acquisition experts say federal managers should dig a little deeper to find the right solution. And they should listen to their acquisition employees before taking such a drastic step.

First, they should consider whether the workers and the work are a good match. Specifically, officials should study their acquisition workforce to see if they have the right number of employees with the right skills to accomplish the tasks they believe are most important, said Elaine Duke, former undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department and now president of Elaine Duke and Associates, a consulting firm.

“They better make darn sure they’re doing some sort of analysis,” Duke said.

Shay Assad, director of defense procurement and acquisition policy at the Defense Department, said agencies must make the effort to understand their needs. Only then can they build the best-suited acquisition workforce.

It seems cliché after it’s been said so many times, but the right match is the key to a long-lasting relationship. To find the right connection, agency officials must understand what’s happening in their contracting shops.

Second, managers and employees need to clearly define priorities for work and decide where procurement data entry is on the scale of importance. They also have to understand why contracting officers are not entering the data, Duke said.

To do that, managers should listen to their employees — perhaps by creating a focus group — so they understand what’s going on. Do workers believe data entry is beneath their skill level or do they simply not have the time to do it? With that information, officials can determine the next step.

“I, as a supervisor, want to know what’s going on and why the data entry isn’t getting done,” Duke said.

Commenting on a Web story, a Federal Computer Week reader named Peter said a major glitch in VA’s database can undo an acquisition employee’s hard work.

“Often uploaded documents revert to 440 error code, and once the document is uploaded, usually it is destroyed,” he said. “Hence, you’re penalizing a person for a software error.”

Workers like Peter should be in the first focus group VA managers meet with before deciding on a punishment that would undermine the relationship between senior officials and their employees.

NEXT STORY: SSA: The check is not in the mail

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